Game: Encased: A Sci-Fi Postapocalpytic RPG
Developer: Dark Crystal Games
Genre: Role-Playing game
Releases: 2019 (PC)
On the Blaugust Discord channel, we have a small community project in which we write articles for videogames that are featured in the monthly Humble Choice bundle. After a few months in which I was willing to write but the selection of games was not really appealing to me, the January 2023 selection actually offered titles I could see myself investing time into. Cue “Encased”, the self-titled “Sci-Fi Postapocalpytic RPG” from the Russian developer Dark Crystal Games. I was not even aware of the game before I saw it listed in the Humble Choice, but I played a few isometric role-playing games before and was definitely interested to see what this one had to offer. By the way, there are obviously more Humble Choice articles for January 2023 from various bloggers, the list being as follows:
- Doom Eternal: Magi from Indiecator (September 2021)
- Tribes of Midgard: Not covered.
- Encased: This very article you are reading right now.
- OlliOlli World: Not covered.
- Grow: Song of the Evertree: Paeroka from NerdyBookahs
- Conan Chop Chop: Not covered.
- Hokko Life: Krikket from Nerd Girl Thoughts
- The Serpent Rogue: Krikket from Nerd Girl Thoughts
So, with that being said, here are my thoughts on “Encased: A Sci-Fi Postapocalpytic RPG”:
“Encased” takes place inside an area that is shielded by the so-called “Dome”. Said Dome is of unknown origin, but changed the life of all people inside its area quite drastically after simply popping up one day during the 1970s. It works as a sort of shield that allows everything to enter the zone it guards completely unimpeded but has the major drawback of not letting any living matter out again; at least not alive. Inorganic materials can still pass through the energy shield without a scratch, with gave the C.R.O.N.U.S. Foundation ( the “Committee for Research of Objects of Non-Usual Source“) an idea and the potential for lots of money to be made. Inside the Dome rages a storm that is simply called “Maelstrom” (without an article), a visual spectacle of green lightning and sandstorms as well as a natural catastrophe of unimaginable power. It is hinted that this alien force is also the reason to why strange phenomena appear all over the place, from so-called anomalies which can easily fry rash adventurers, to so-called relics which offer power to those that want to use them as well as riches to anyone finding a wealthy collector. So far, the setting is nothing new, with the keepout energy shield that you might know from the first “Gothic” to the “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” (or the novel series “Roadside Picnic”) idea of anomalies and artifacts with the difference of “Encased” taking place in a fictional version of America.
Even the idea of riches beyond your wildest dreams or basically any other wish you could think of is worked into “Encased”, since that is how C.R.O.N.U.S. lures people into the “Fallout”-esque hellhole under the Dome. If you are not keen to travel the world and even get paid a hefty sum for being limited in your movement to an area in the middle of Tennessee. However, to make a project as big as the exploration and exploitation of the area in the Dome successful, C.R.O.N.U.S. needed to get all sorts of people; and this is where the Five Wings come into play. Every citizen of the Dome belongs to one of the five wings, since they are all sorted by their professions: The Blue Wing consists of builders, mechanics, basically any profession that would be required for installation and maintenance. The White Wingers are scientists, which study and catalogue all the relics and phenomena to broaden the knowledge of humanity. The Silver Wings definitely earned their color from being silver-tongued, being the ones who take care of planning, deployment, and management of the operation. The Black Wing is the military arm of C.R.O.N.U.S., a combined police force and army that is necessary whenever things get out of order; or whenever the Black Wingers think that they need to step in. The Black Wing is also brought in to keep the Orange Wing in check, ex-criminals doing menial labor that no one else wants to do.
This is where your character comes into play. You can join any of the five Wings, which will have an impact on your stat distribution and will unlock different ways to tackle certain situations. Meet Trevor Coke, my character. He is a Blue Winger that is proficient is wielding melee weapons due to the work with heavy tools, a capable mechanic which reflectes in high “Tech”, but sympathizes with Orange Wingers for which reason I have chosen to also level “Criminal”. Your starting wing will help in various dialogues with colleagues from the same wing, since you understand their work and pleights. No Blue Winger will refuse my suggestions for help since we are from the same cloth, but you cannot pull that buddy card with members of the other Wings since I am a stranger for them. This is a cool design choice since it allows multiple playthroughs with different characters without getting stale.
However, while the choice of which Wing to belong to is concise and easy to understand, the traits list is where the game starts to become a little confusing. I understand that “Encased” takes inspiration from games like “Fallout 1”, but when you force players to go through a list of (potential) bonuses, you should keep things brief in my opinion. For example, since certain drawbacks are still listed with a “+”, you might get to think that a lot more of the stuff on offer is beneficial than it actually is. The “Redneck” perk increases both your Guts by 4 as well as the perks rate by 1, but in this case the perks refers to how many levels it takes until you can take a new perk with +1 being obviously terrible. Or “Penitent One”, where a long list of stats can be found of which all have a “+” in front. Well, most of them are beneficial, but multiplying the incoming crit damage with +0.5 is actually quite bad. I am not saying that I find this system to be a big dealer breaker, but you have to read quite a lot right at the start to get an idea of what to do; which might not be for everyone.
And the traits are not the only character-building element that will take some of your time in the worst case scenario, the attributes are also quite … elaborate. There are eight attributes in total: Muscle, Perception, Guts, Charisma, Brains, Deftness, Fortune, and Psyche; and they all have impact on the various skills the character can level, as is tradition in role-playing games of this type. The window popped up during character creation and after about three minutes of reading I decided to go with whatever the game feels is best for my character because I could not be bothered to learn the frankly clunky system. Most of the skills affected make sense, like Guts being Constitution in other systems and therefore affecting things like maximum health and the Survival skill. The point where it becomes too pen-and-paper heavy is when you take a look at stuff like “Close Quarters Damage”, which is calculated by taking the base level of the character devided by two, and then adding your Muscle value -5 but only in case this last result is positive. If you like to dabble in overly convoluted systems like AD&D where you can crit the pinky off the opposing hand, then this might be your thing; but it was not for me who wanted to play the game and not spend two hours reading rules text.
Anyway, at some point, you will have managed to successfully leave the character creation and find yourself in the lift that descends straight into the Dome, your last seconds in the outside world. You can talk to some of the other people being brought into the area, all with their own aspirations and worries, you will get to see Maelstrom for the first time, and then enter the not-so-paradisical world inside the Dome. Your character gets a reality check, seeing that most of the promises were rather empty, but there is little to change about that now. Enter the facilities, get your stuff in order by registrating and obtaining your equipment, and once you have seen and talked most things and people you are done with the tutorial section and ready to head into your first real challenge. Originally, you were meant to do all the necessary check-ups and then leave for Magellan station, but an emergency throws a wrench into the works. The Nashville station, one glorious wonder of science and the proudest achievement of C.R.O.N.U.S. so far, has gone radio-silent; and worse, the head of Magellan already sent a party of people to investigate, but has not heard from them either. In the case of my character, a Blue Wing member, the Magellan leader tells you that someone with the capabilities of repairing the necessary means of communication was not part of the recon team he has sent, therefore expecting them to be in good health but currently unable to report on their status. Accepting the mission despite it sounding like a death march as the good worker minion that I am, I joined my driver for the mission and headed towards the unknown.
I am not going to talk about the entire plot, since I have quite a lot of other points I want to address, but you basically find that the Nashville base is inoperational because the brains of its inhabitants were slowly fried by a huge relic on the bottom level that the researchers found only a short time before. Nashville eventually becomes the side of major destruction due to Maelstrom, leaving all of the people that were in the general vicinity dead; except for you. Your character re-emerges two years after the catastophy of Nashville, finding that what little they learned before they went to Nashville completely changed during that time. The control now has been given to the “New Commitee” under the leadership of a certain Kimiko Nakamura, who has changed quite a bit during her time in power, including a quarantine for as long as Maelstrom happens to expand. If this information seems a bit random to you, dear reader, imagine me sitting in front of my computer screen trying to forget all of the meaningful information about the lore I heard of before since that is history now. It’s a different take at world-building, the idea of dismissing all previous characters for a set of new ones, and I think I can see why that is done so little in videogames.
However, with this change also come a lot of freedoms in the game. You can now finally explore the world map, and you will soon make contact with the first potential companions, another staple in role-playing games that I think would have been missed if left out. And while your companions are a bit … shallow, I did not mind them at all. Crump was my first companion and is still my go-to choice for every adventure I undertake. I found him being pestered by three Black Wings in a bar, who were clearly out for blood; and to level the playing field, I came along and evened the odds a little. Crump, who is clearly a scruffy Englishman, was thankful for my intervention and asked me whether I could promise more fist-fighting whereever I go. I ensured him that fisticuffs are very much needed for my line of work and he joined my with a glint in his eye and his trusty Vajra in his hands. And there are more companions that you can make out as such: Katarzyna is a White Winger that lost her citizenship in Magellan; and you are her only way to get back in. She will cloak once you reach the facility but call you back eventually. Yoko is a robot-girl, a commodity that is explained in-lore by the Dome preventing pregnancies, and while she might seem like a Japanese 10-year old she does come equipped with an energy sniper rifle and a willingness to pull the trigger. And then there is Sparrow, a gunslinger that fights injustice and crime whereever he meets it. A shrewd fellow, and one I cannot really work with due to my sometimes morally questionable decision-making, but a companion nonetheless.
In fact, despite the fact that Crump has not a lot of character per se, I felt like he is one of the best writing-wise. He seems a little slow-witted, is hard to read, and looks exactly like you would think a dangerous and violent criminal would look like. But I scratched his back when the Black Wings were out for his blood, and now he scratches mine for helping me doing whatever it is I do. And this is only one of the characters that I found well-realized. Some of the major characters you will encounter during your travels are also well-done, and “Encased” makes sure they occupy space on the entire scale of dialogue-willingness. Karma Ishtwani has such an immense hatred towards the project your are working on later that she probably wishes to turn you into dust via mere thought, and her dialogue absolutely delivers that. Reverend Santiago, the speaker of the local church and a man with incredibly white teeth, is a passionate spokesman with more than a few ulterior motives. Don Spencer is the exact opposite, who tries to convey information with the fewest words uttered possible. He does not seem like talking to you is annoying you or that you are beneath him in standing, he simply addresses people in the most time-efficient way possible; which is not a bad quality to have when you are leading an organisation of mercenaries. And any story-relevant part of the game is voiced, with the characters all having solid voice actors doing a fine job, as well as a narrator taking care of all the descriptions.
The developer cut some corners when it came to more generic characters. A facility with seven levels full of stuff to explore and interact with needs to be filled with personel; and they cannot all be class-actors with lots of missions to hand out to perfect strangers. They will normally utter some vocalized phrase to greet you, but then only present the rest of their dialogue as text for you to read. This is not a problem per se, but “Encased” is a rather verbose game. I have played the old-school “Fallout” games and the entire “Shadowrun” series, and there are times when the story is gripping you, making you interested in what happens next even though all that happens is you reading through some text uttered by a character in front of you. Again, you have two options here: Be concise and deliver whatever information you want to player to have in a logical but quick manner, or make the dialogue and story gripping enough to keep the player interested in it. And I can tell you that a lot of people in the Steam reviews absolutely dreaded reading through text in “Encased”. I was fine with most of it, but whenever Maelstrom is described again, I kind of turn off. About twenty hours in, I still have no idea what that storm is, how it is formed, why it is there, or what the developer wants to tell me by constantly describing it in flowery language. And talking to all characters I meet, something that you just do in role-playing games, was dropped by me at some point because I could not be bothered to hear what Black Wing dude 27 had to tell me.
I like to strike a blow for “Encased”: The game is good. Some of the worldbuilding ideas are nice, the combat basically works, and I had my fair share of fun exploring some of the areas. I would not give it more than that though, which comes down to a lot of details that I personally found annoying or questionable. At some point during the story, your character will find out that they have an unusual resistance to the drawbacks of Maelstrom, which normally turns people insane. Nothing else happened, the character just learned that they are practically immune to a natural phenomenon. So why the hell do I get lines like “Refuse: you want Maelstrom to consume any and all” like a total megalomaniac? If a doctor told me that I am immune to pollen, I might agree with them that further investigation could be helpful to science in order to replicate that “mutation” in others; but I do not automatically assume that I am the god of trees and that I can control all pollen in the world like some sort of superhero. This is just lazy writing: The developers to present that option to the players, even though there is absolutely no reason why any normal human being should think that way.
There are lots of other details that I found irritating. There are some missing parts in dialogues; nothing major just lines like “Thank you very much.” being voiced while “Thank you very much indeed.” is written. The pathfinding of companions is quite dreadful and I can only urge you to switch to single-character-controls by pressing the chains locking the portraits together when you want to do anything that requires precision. Companions will stand near a source of radiation with no care in the world while keeping a certain minimum distance from your character which makes navigating some spaces rather tricky. They will often refer to doors or pathways being blocked when you go through it, which sometimes causes them to take ridiculous detours through the level. And since they seem to be slower than me, they constantly fall behind which causes warning messages telling me that I cannot abandon my companion whenever I want to transition to another area. Apart from companions, there is combat to talk about: The idea of cover is really superfluous since it either does not exist or does not do enough for me to notice. And stun is really more a suggestion than an actual ailment. I had enemies stunned by my trusty Orange Winger Crump, with a symbol of of circle and two stars proudly proclaiming that the target I hover over is stunned, only for them to flee and try to reach the range at which his colleagues hear his shouts for help.
The combat system is fine otherwise, moving on a grid, gaining action points every turn that you can spend on actions like movement or attacking, nothing out of the ordinary here. However, there are two innovations that I found odd. The first is jamming: Projectile weapons can jam, which adds this fun little mechanic to your strategy role-playing game that your character, which you have planned to do a certain amount of damage for that turn, not only has a miss chance but also might get their weapon screwed and need to unjam it for a sizeable portion of the action points for that turn, potentially leaving them with no shots left since the high-caliber weapons need a lot of action points. The other thing is skills, and not really how they are used in combat but rather how you gain them. You unlock four new skills, active and passive, every time you manage to bring the skill value to an amount devisible by 30, with one final single skill at 150. But here is the thing: Those skills not only might be unnecessary on my character, but they also clog up the action bar on the bottom with loads of horseshit that I was forced to also take when all I wanted was one specific bonus. I’d much rather have one specific thing that I actually want for my character than three additional freebees that are unlikely to ever get to be used.
And then there are the items. Looting is very much mandatory in “Encased”; for various reasons. You need to have money in order to gain better equipment and have the necessary supplies, and I have yet to figure out how the game gets to its prices. Any crate, chest, drawer, and pile of trash that does not light up red when the cursor hovers over it is freely lootable, which means that you can move entire households while the occupant of the room is present. And you even get XP, but only a tiny amount that will lose in relevance rather quickly. So, you loot everything, which takes time and is rarely awarded with anything worth looking at since you want to sell it all for easy money. However, that can be a mistake since you need certain items to upgrade your equipment or clear encounters. This slowly turns into a game of “What is truly expendable?” and leaves you cluttered with lots of junk that you cannot know for sure is not going to get interesting at some point down the road. In essence, this is the unwillingness to use an “Elixir” in a “Final Fantasy” game turned up to eleven.
Reading the last few paragraphs might make you think that I disliked “Encased” as a whole, but quite the opposite is the case: I am simply annoyed by all the little things that could have been done better. There is certainly a lot to see in “Encased” and I have not even touched on the enemy design, the crafting system, or the various contraptions like mines, jetpacks, harpoons, and teleporters that you can use to turn the tide of battle. At the time of writing, I am not even done with the game but decided that with around fifteen hours in I might have an idea of what the game has to offer. At the end of the day, you need to decide for yourself: Do you want a role-playing game with interesting world building, standard combat, lots of text, and one-hundred little flaws? Than “Encased” might be a title that could occupy you for hours; and for a price of around 6€ during a Steam sale and the opportunity of simply getting it as part of the Humble Choice for the rest of January, it does its job rather well. But in all honesty, it does not reach the level of polish, charm, and character that a “Shadowrun: Hong Kong” can offer.
Pingback: Blaugust Reviews – Humble Choice January 2023 Edition – Nerd Girl Thoughts